The BYU-Utah football rivalry — one of the most heated college rivalries in the country — may not decrease in intensity despite the Cougars and Utes not being in the same football conference.
Although Utah joined the Pac-12 conference and BYU went independent in football, the two rivals are still scheduled to play each other for at least the next two seasons. They have traditionally played each other in October or November in the football season, but this year BYU hosts Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. — BYU’s home opener.
It’s only the second time BYU and Utah will play in September, and the earliest the two have ever played. In 1958, BYU beat Utah 14-7 on Sept. 27. This will be the first BYU-Utah game in September played in Provo.
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged the Cougars would be playing the Utes earlier than usual this season, but did not seem to think the change of timing would affect the intensity of the game.
“Certainly the timing is different, but I’m not sure the game will be different,” Mendenhall said. “If you want to know from the state’s perspective what game is most important and who’s going to be paying and looking for bragging rights at the highest level, whether it’s the last game or the third game, I still think this game will have a special place for anyone.”
The Cougars and Utes have been at each others’ throats in football for a long time, a length of time that is disputed. The Utes claim the series began in 1896, when BYU was Brigham Young Academy and the two teams played four games in the late 1890s. BYU claims the series began in 1922, when the school’s football program was reinstated after a hiatus. While there have been alternating periods of dominance from both teams, the highly competitive nature of the rivalry has led both BYU and Utah to hold the most conference championships in the Mountain West Conference, the league both teams helped establish in 1999 and left this season after 12 years in the conference.
BYU offensive line coach Mark Weber said he did not think BYU and Utah being in separate conferences was going to affect the relationships between the two schools.
“That game is a huge game, and it means everything to our players, coaches, fans and students,” Weber said. “I don’t think it will change anything. They’re our rival, and anytime you play your rival, you want to win that sucker.”
Both the Cougars and Utes have already had a taste of their new football lives.
Utah, 1-1 on the year, played its first Pac-12 game last week, losing to USC 23-14. The Utes had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but a field goal attempt was blocked and the Trojans returned the block for a touchdown.
With its independent status, BYU has played a pair of road games in SEC and Big 12 country, beating Ole Miss 14-13 in Week 1 by rallying from a 13-0 deficit heading into the fourth quarter. Last week, the Cougars fell short in a 17-16 contest against No. 21 Texas in which BYU led 13-0 in the first half before the Longhorns rallied with two second half touchdowns.
Coaches and players alike have expressed the thought that the Cougars-Utes rivalry is not going anywhere. The Utah game is especially important for senior running back JJ Di Luigi. One of his favorite memories at BYU, DiLuigi said, was beating the Utes in his sophomore season — Andrew George caught game-winning touchdown that year in overtime in a 26-23 BYU victory. While he certainly enjoyed the victory, he also said there was more at stake with the game this year.
“I remember I was on the field during the last play with that game-winning touchdown, and that was an amazing experience to be a part of,” DiLuigi said. “The stakes with Utah are higher now, since they’re in a BCS league.”
The football game will not be a walk in the park, however; in five of the past six seasons, the victor of the BYU-Utah game has only won by seven points — a mere touchdown — or less.
Senior Terence Brown, BYU’s starting center, agreed with his coaches and teammates on this one.
“I think [the BYU-Utah game] will still be a big in-state rivalry,” Brown said. “You look at other programs across the country and there are multiple rivalries that go beyond conferences.”
Brown listed the Florida-Florida State rivalry as an example of an out-of-conference rivalry. He said where he grew up — Brown is from Summerville, S.C. — a lot of the rivalries were a big deal although they were not in the same conference. At least according to many football players and coaches, nothing will change with the BYU-Utah duel.
“The rivalry will continue and fans will continue to do their thing,” Brown said.